In general, most patients with headaches have relatively normal examinations. However, here we review some potential findings that should make you think of a more sinister etiology for your patient’s headache.
The whole body can contribute to headache in some patients. Vital signs are an important part of any physical examination. An abnormality in blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate can contribute to headaches.
Cerebral blood flow is proportionally linked to blood pressure. When blood pressure increases, the intracranial blood volume is increased which increases intracranial pressure, resulting in headaches (particularly during a hypertensive crisis). More importantly, a sudden severe headache with elevated blood pressure may be indicative of a hemorrhagic stroke. Uncontrolled hypertension can cause blood vessels to rupture resulting in hemorrhage.
An elevated body temperature can be associated with systemic illness. For example, an infection like meningitis can produce a headache.
Changes in heart rate and rhythm can also indicate various medical illnesses that may produce secondary headache, such as atrial fibrillation with stroke. Tachycardia can be an indication of infection, other medical illness, or it could just be a marker for severe pain from the headache.
Cardiac and respiratory evaluation
Auscultation of the heart may give clues to general health and the presence of vascular disease.
Examination of the lungs can give clues about ventilation and uncover underlying infection.
Auscultate the carotid arteries and the eyes for bruits.
Palpate the temporal arteries for ropiness and to assess the pulse which may be lost in temporal arteritis.
Head and neck
Observation and palpation of the head and neck of a patient with headache will help to identify trigger points, trauma, infection, and disorders of the glands or joints in this region.
The sinuses and muscles of the head and neck must be palpated to look for tender areas. Are there any trigger points in the strap muscles or temporalis muscles? Also assess for active trigger points in the muscles of the neck, and around the shoulders, including the rhomboids and trapezius. This search may lead the skilled examiner to extend the examination into the upper extremities and torso.
Trauma or infection
Check for signs of trauma or infection. Check the range of motion of the cervical spine and stress the facets and ligaments by hyperextending the neck while the head is bent to each side. If there is any restricted range of motion that is deemed to indicate nuchal rigidity, this may indicate meningeal irritation from blood or infection.
Palpate the thyroid gland for nodules and enlargements.
Lastly, palpate the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) during opening and closing. Is there a click? Does the mandible slide or translocate? Does the jaw open widely?
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